By Alexander Opicho
Conventional history on nationalism and the struggle for freedom from colonialists and a series of post-colonial brutalities in East Africa does nothing else but worship men as the freedom fighters. And they are, but that is not the end of that conversation. It is also a historical skewing of facts. Patriarchal heroism has means the history of East African politics has been written by circumlocution around male hero-worship. The truth is women fought, women have been fighting and women are fighting for freedom from social and political oppression in East Africa. Silence about them is a disservice to humanity.
The motivation for this article is based on the evidently persistent negligence that Kenya National Museum has shown to the history of women freedom fighters in the East Africa, especially the minuscule recognition given to Mnyazi wa Menza commonly known in the oral discussions as Mekatilili Wa Menza.
I was disappointed when I recently visited the National Museums of Kenya in Malindi and Mombasa and failed to see any substantial size of relic, written literature and sculptures on Mnyazi wa Menza. I only happened to see a small sized commercial curio shop owned by an Italian trader operating along the back-street under the name ‘Mekatilili wa Menza curio shop’. I was and are still feeling miffed about this type of selective culture elevation in Kenya’s history.
For the sake of those who are not familiar with Kenya’s unwritten history, Mnyazi wa Menza was a Kenyan woman leader among the Giriama people living along the Indian ocean coastline. She organized and led her people against British Colonial brutality for years up to 1914. Her name was Mnyazi, but she became Mekatilili after the birth of her first son Katilili. Among the Mijikenda, and just like most other Bantu communities in Kenya, mothers often call themselves after their first born sons. Hence the prefix ‘me’ – a variation of ‘ma’ –in Mijikenda, which stands for ‘mother of’.
Later, writers of history would propagate the falsehood that made Mekatilili to be wrongly considered a prophetess and medicine-woman among the Giriama. No, she was just a freedom fighter. When the British Colonial adventurists rampaged the homes of the Giriama community, Mekatilili opposed them. She was so bold that, at one point, she slapped the team leader of a British exploration troupe in a heated exchange. She was adamant that the British must respect the Giriama culture, as well as the space and freedom of her people.
A widow, Mekatilili was strong enough to mobilise the people for the cause against the British. The colonialists responded back by seizing large tracts of Giriama land, burning homes as well as razing cultural and worship…
A widow, Mekatilili was strong enough to mobilise the people for the cause against the British. The colonialists responded back by seizing large tracts of Giriama land, burning homes as well as razing cultural and worship centres known as Kaya Fungo. These series of events led to the war of resistance known in Giriama lore as ‘Kondo ya Chembe’. Soon after, Mekatilili was captured by the British on October 17, 1913 and carted, some 900 kilometres away as a slave to Mumias, in Western Kenya – ruled by Nabongo Mumia, king of the Wanga. The king was a collaborator of the British and a friend of slave traders.
According to British colonial records, five years later, she escaped prison and returned to her native area where she continued to oppose the imposition of Colonial policies and ordinances. However, some narratives say that she escaped from the prison in Mumias and walked over 1,000 kilometres back home to Giriama. She died in 1924, and was buried in Bungale, in Magarini Constituency, Malindi District. The story of Mekatilili is closely related to that of Risper Khayanga Chenjeni, a freedom fighter in Dini a Musambwa (denomination of African faith) from Bokoli village in Bungoma County, in western Kenya.
Another human-rights wonder of the post-colonial Kenya is that of Philomena Chelagat Mutai. She was young and beautiful, a hardworking and intelligent activist-cum-human rights politician. She spoke out against political assassinations, land grabbing and corruption in Kenya under the reign of Daniel Moi. She tirelessly championed the inclusion of women in Kenyan mainstream politics. Her life was wholly focused on better governance that observed inclusivity and equality for all.
Born and brought up in 1949 in Rift valley Province, Chelagat’s early involvement in social and political activism for human rights and equality got her expelled from Highlands Girls School for leading a students’ strike. She later on enrolled for a degree course at the University of Nairobi to study political science, where she rose to a national prominence, especially when she became a student leader and the editor of the The Platform, a student Newspaper. Due to her liberal ideas and firm political stands, she was repeatedly suspended. She tried her hand in electoral politics at age of 24 in which she defeated more experienced and very wealthy male opponents. It was no mean feat!
Thus, she became the youngest and un-married woman legislator in Kenya’s Parliament at the time. To be a woman and un-married in parliament at that time of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi, in that age, is akin to imagining being queen of England when you are black and Catholic. She spoke out against Jomo Kenyatta for making selfish land pacts with the British. She became part of a clique of MPs derisively named “The Seven Bearded Sisters” by the politically correct.
Chelagat Mutai spoke out against political assassinations, land grabbing and corruption in Kenya under the reign of Daniel Moi. She tirelessly championed the inclusion of women in mainstream politics.
In 1976 she was prosecuted and jailed for inciting squatters to invade a very large sisal farm owned by an absentee landlord in her constituency. She served two and a half years in prison, a technical ploy by her detractors; she lost her parliamentary seat. When she was released in September 1978, she easily trounced her opponents to win.
When the state plotted to arrest her again, she fled to Tanzania. She returned three years later to and kept away from politics in order to take care of her mother. She was appointed by the government to a senior position at Kenya Commercial Bank only to be fired after a short while through a radio bulletin. In 2006, Chelagat was involved in a road accident that left her disabled and permanently confined to a wheelchair. She died in June 2013.
Across the border in Uganda, Alice Auma Lakwena led an armed struggle against environmental degradation, the killing of children and women, political exclusion and ethnic profiling in Uganda under Museveni’s NRM government. Her political image and persona was distorted by narratives, propagated by government, of witchcraft, demon-possession and spell-casting. She died in 2007.
In Rwanda, Paul Kagame is praised for bringing security, political stability and infrastructural modernization to his country Rwanda. But Kagame has also failed on three fronts; brutalising the media, killing the opposition and his idea of a life presidency. Diane Shima Rwigara came out to question him on these issues. The state responded by creating fake nude photos of Rwigara and circulating them. It then detained her, and her mother, shut down and auctioned here businesses before eventually releasing her. (